What’s going on under the national sheets?

By Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor (Maître de conférences), Université Bordeaux Montaigne

Almost all of us do it. In many countries, it permeates popular culture. Some people think it’s delicious. Others find it vulgar or distasteful. It can be a basic part of survival and a source of meaning and pleasure. It happens in almost every home and even on lots of street corners. In short, it’s happening everywhere. And I’m not talking about eating hamburgers. I’m talking about sex.

Despite this utter ubiquity of “doing it,” social scientists have given sex far less attention than other equally universal human behaviours. That is not to say that people from artists and writers to priests and parents haven’t paid attention to it. On the contrary, sex is something of an obsession that is at once taboo and omnipresent. But perhaps because of its simultaneous association with morality and vulgarity, social scientists—the people whose job it is to study human behavior—have often rejected the topic or relegated it the sidelines. That ignorance has led us to think sex isn’t related to the kinds of issues that SEN readers care about, such as national identity and ethnic communities.

Although some physicians and mental health professionals, including Magnus Hirschfeld and Sigmund Freud, pulled the investigation of sex away from the non-analytical and moralising gaze of the clergy, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that social scientists finally started to pay more attention to it. In the 1950s, people like the American Alfred Kinsey—originally a biologist—finally began to systematically investigate what people did with each other (or by themselves). Their work broke with prevailing conservative social attitudes by attempting to study sexuality without judgment and with an eye to making sense of its impact and meaning.
Vern Bollough’s 1995 Science in the Bedroom (New York: Basic Books) traces this history.

Although we’ve made a lot of progress since that era until recently social scientists have still tended to see sex as a niche topic without much implication for people who study more “serious” subjects. If you think you might be one of those people—or if you just want an excuse to read about sex—then my recently published article in SEN, The Importance of Sexuality for Research on Ethnicity and Nationalism, is for you. In it, I present some of the basic theories of the sociology of sexuality. For example, you’ll learn that sexuality has three distinct parts: identity, behaviour, and desire. Do you know how the three parts of your own sexuality line up (or not)? Did you realise that they are shaped by your national, racial, and ethic identities? Hopefully, you’ll find that the work I discuss can provide analytical leverage for answering questions that scholars of ethnicity and nationalism routinely ask. I also review some of the best recent literature at the intersection of these two fields and discuss how this research reveals sexuality’s key role in a variety of phenomena including: the way countries create national identities; the reasons people migrate; the degree to which people feel like members of a community; or even the tools of international diplomacy.

In the last few weeks, several events make clear how sexuality and nationality can become entangled at both the national and personal levels. For example, Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda, recently wrote in the Guardian about the way the Ugandan government has violently repressed events meant to create visibility for queer (meaning non-heterosexual) Ugandans. In his piece, Mugisha describes how creating a “Pride” celebration in Uganda is uniquely difficult because of anti-gay laws and attitudes in Uganda, laws motivated in part by U.S. evangelical priests and inherited from British colonial codes. But it is also a challenge because of the way homosexual identity has become imbued with symbols emanating from parts the global North, erasing local meanings of sexuality and making organizing against repression seem like supporting inauthentic cultures. The entangling of sexuality and identity, in this case, has serious consequences for people’s lives.

At roughly the same time, a group of activists in Mongolia held their annual Gay Pride event. The photos show people waving the easily recognisable rainbow flag and holding signs written in Mongolian, except for the word “gay,” which was written in English. If flags often signify pride and a sense of belonging in a community, it is interesting how this symbol and the words that go along with it have travelled far beyond the context in which American activists created it. Why do people take up these globally circulated symbols as they fight for recognition within their own national contexts? How do American gays and lesbians respond or relate to their Mongolian counterparts, if at all? Do they feel like members of the same community, drawing on the same language to describe who they are despite their other differences? How do race, class, and gender play a role in shaping those feelings and relationships? These questions are important. By daring to take sexuality more seriously, I think we can begin to answer them.

Link to article: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/sena.12224/full

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